Orbán is misreading Trump – he might be in for a big surprise

In September Hungary’s Ambassador to Washington Réka Szemerkényi met Senator Jeff Sessions, a Trump confidant, to express Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s admiration and support for Mr. Trump. This summer Mr. Orbán was the first EU’s Prime Minister to endorse Trump. Later when the billionaire’s poll numbers dived, Mr. Orbán’s press chief denied the endorsement, displaying his usual flip-flopping.

Now the American people have elected 70-year old real-estate developer Donald John Trump the 45th president of the United States. This is a stunning victory and a culmination of a populist and polarizing campaign that attacked the establishment and ideals of American democracy. Mr. Trump has no political experience and never held an elected office. Four past presidents had never been elected to public office: Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, Trump is the only president without any prior political or military experience.

Mr. Orbán rushed to congratulate Trump on his victory: “What great news. Democracy is still alive.” Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó issued a statement that the “American people have made their decision and, after a remarkable campaign, democracy has emerged stronger.” According to Szijjártó “in both the world economy and world politics a new era has begun…. Hungary is open to cooperation.”

Will President Trump change the highly critical US stand of the Orbán regime? Will he invite Orbán to the White House? I don’t think so. Don’t expect dramatic changes in US foreign policy.

The fact that Mr. Trump might be more sympathetic to Russian President Putin than President Obama is good news for pro-Putin Orbán. At the same time, Mr. Orbán’s pro-China stand will be a major irritant since Mr. Trump has relentlessly attacked China’s trade policies and won’t tolerate pro-China NATO allies.

At this moment it seems that Trump’s victory is a surprise gift for Orbán. Yet the honeymoon won’t last long and Hungarian-American relations will continue to cool as long as Mr. Orbán is in power in Budapest.

The US election has brought some other good news for Mr. Orbán. A friend, Rep. Dennis Ross, Republican Congressman from Florida with Hungarian roots has been re-elected. He is the co-chair of the Hungarian Congressional Caucus. The Democratic co-chair Rep. Marcy Kaptur from Ohio also kept her seat. Andy Harris, another Hungarian-American Congressman who is friendly with the Orbán government, has also stayed in Congress. Both Rep. Ross and Rep. Harris are staunch Trump supporters.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican and long-time anti-communist pal has been re-elected but he is not enamored with Mr. Trump. In the past he criticized his candidacy and did not endorse him.

There was also no Trump endorsement from Hungarian American ex-Governor of New York George Pataki. In fact Mr. Pataki stated that Mr. Trump “needs to step down.” A couple of weeks ago he tweeted that he was “horrified” by Trump’s “poisonous mix of bigotry and ignorance.”

I have a feeling that Mr. Orbán and his diplomats are misreading Trump and have unrealistic expectations. Trump’s loose election rhetoric bears similarities to Mr. Orbán’s policies, but that was election talk, and not necessarily to be implemented as actual US policies. On the other hand, Mr. Trump’s 100-day plan aims to crack down on foreign lobbying in Washington. He is dismayed that foreigners are pouring millions into the pockets of politically connected lobbyists to sway US policies. Mr. Orbán himself has spent millions to cover up his government’s “democracy deficit” in the US and Florida ex-Congressman Connie Mack’s juicy Hungarian lobbying contract has raised eyebrows in Washington. (Read more here.)

Budapest might be in for a big surprise. The fundamental principles of Washington’s foreign policies won’t change, in fact, I expect that the incoming Trump administration will follow a “harder line” with Mr. Orbán and other foreign leaders. Trump believes that President Obama was “too soft” and the US should “negotiate” better deals. Make them pay for US protection! Trump also has promised forceful protection of US national interests and principles.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Budapest will soon discover that they have misjudged President Trump. Mr. Orbán might learn soon – Be careful what you wish for, you might get it!

György Lázár

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